Co-founder Gerry Balcar was intimately involved at the center of a momentous shift in road safety thinking that started in 1971 in the United States. This shift changed the principal focus from trying to alter driver and pedestrian behavior and to improve vehicle safety standards to a focus on first improving the safety of existing roads.
At that time, the leadership and staff of the US House of Representatives Committee on Public Works were seriously concerned that efforts to halt annual increases in road traffic fatalities, that had continued for a decade, had failed. A prior “grand design” highway safety act from the committee in 1966, with a “balanced approach” of the traditional interventions recommended by the road safety community of the era, had produced only limited results. A companion act in 1966 originating from the US Senate Commerce Committee focused on vehicle safety standards, had not yet been effective. New data from the Federal Highway Administration, however, showed varying number of crashes and deaths on different types of roads. That led to the conclusion that the safety of existing roads was a much more important part of the highway safety equation than had been previously recognized.
“New data from the Federal Highway Administration, however, showed varying number of crashes and deaths on different types of roads. That led to the conclusion that the safety of existing roads was a much more important part of the highway safety equation than had been previously recognized.”
A new, science-based, philosophy developed that helped keep a significant share of driver mistakes from happening or from becoming crashes. It embodied the concept of making existing roads as safe as possibly as soon as possible and came to be known as road safety engineering. This was incorporated into the Highway Safety Act of 1973, which was conceived and designed by a small group on Capitol Hill of which Gerry was part. His work on this issue was extensive and lasted more than ten years as the reauthorizations and reevaluations of the 1973 act progressed into the 1980’s.
By 1985, reflectorized edge lines and center lines had been installed and maintained on hundreds of thousands of miles of arterial and collector roads, thousands of intersections had gotten signs or signals, guardrails had been installed, and other safety treatments had been included. These improvements were seen by millions of drivers on “their” roads and became a constant advertisement for building interest in, and support for, road safety. Fatalities on rural federal-aid roads, the focus of the program, were reduced 35.4% from 1973-1985 and the overall American fatality rate per 100,000 population was reduced from 25.6 to 18.4. Rich countries around the world followed the US model achieving even better results.
The Current Issue
The main issue concerning road traffic safety is now in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) where 90 percent of global road traffic fatalities occur. Two articles in the January 25, 2014 issue of The Economist, Reinventing the Wheel and Driving to an Early Grave, cast a sharp light on these fatalities and the need for inexpensive and effective actions to improve the safety of those roads, citing that this was done in the rich world. Concepts discussed included making roads safer need not cost much and that safe roads make more economic sense than dangerous ones. The articles started discussions among some of us who knew the reality of what produced the decline of road traffic fatalities in the rich world. Like what happened there with economic development, LMICs are now experiencing increases in vehicle ownership, traffic volumes and new and inexperienced drivers travelling on safety deficient roads.
It became clear that the United Nations and the World Health Organization seems to have misunderstood what really produced the results in the rich world. For more than a decade, they have promoted ideas and programs focusing on flawed and inadequate solutions, with overly complex recommendations, and without prioritizing actions. These recommendations have produced little change in the yearly outcomes in LMIC’s. The UN/WHO have largely failed to recognize the need to first make existing roads as safe as possible as soon as possible.
We realized that we had special knowledge of the events and results of the original road safety engineering actions and that we were uniquely qualified to not only tell that story but also to point out the fallacy of the approach promoted by the UN/WHO, largely followed by the global road safety community. We further realized that if we did not describe the details of this experience, the history might be permanently lost. The book REDUCING GLOBAL ROAD TRAFFIC TRAGEDIES: The Lost History of Success in the Rich World Now Urgently Needed in Developing Nations is the account of the big change in road traffic safety thinking, the results and how the lessons learned back then can be applied now to help improve the situation in LMICs.
Our mission is to re-introduce the proven, realistic, relevant and prioritized road safety policies and countermeasures that were successful in rich countries decades ago to achieve short-term, and lasting, results for reducing crashes, injuries and fatalities in low- and middle-income countries. To accomplish this, we have done the conceptual research for a new entity responsible for global road safety with fully accountable leadership and competent staff that can solicit funding from donor nations and private organizations. A driving principle for this entity will be to re-focus current road safety thinking to develop strategies specifically for the urgent needs in low- and middle-income nations.
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